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Life on Mars

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With allusions to David Bowie and interplanetary travel, Life on Mars imagines a soundtrack for the universe to accompany the discoveries, failures, and oddities of human existence. In these new poems, Tracy K. Smith envisions a sci-fi future sucked clean of any real dangers, contemplates the dark matter that keeps people both close and distant, and revisits the kitschy concepts like “love” and “illness” now relegated to the Museum of Obsolescence. These poems reveal the realities of life lived here, on the ground, where a daughter is imprisoned in the basement by her own father, where celebrities and pop stars walk among us, and where the poet herself loses her father, one of the engineers who worked on the Hubble Space Telescope.

75 pages, Paperback

First published May 10, 2011

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About the author

Tracy K. Smith

34 books720 followers
Tracy K. Smith is the author of Wade in the Water; Life on Mars, winner of the Pulitzer Prize; Duende, winner of the James Laughlin Award; and The Body’s Question, winner of the Cave Canem Poetry Prize. She is also the editor of an anthology, American Journal: Fifty Poems for Our Time, and the author of a memoir, Ordinary Light, which was a finalist for the National Book Award. From 2017 to 2019, Smith served as Poet Laureate of the United States. She teaches at Princeton University.

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5 stars
3,441 (40%)
4 stars
3,102 (36%)
3 stars
1,432 (16%)
2 stars
359 (4%)
1 star
120 (1%)
Displaying 1 - 30 of 1,000 reviews
Profile Image for Brina.
887 reviews4 followers
July 19, 2017
For 2017 I have set a goal for myself to read a minimum of twenty Pulitzer winners across all platforms. Upon hearing that Tracy K Smith had been named the United States poet laureate for the next year, I decided to read her 2012 Pulitzer winning collection Life on Mars. In poetry that is a mix of free verse, prose, letters, and songs, Smith delivers powerful words in a four part opus.

Three poems stood out in this collection. The first, The Speed of Belief, pays homage to Smith's late father. Writing in alternating couplet and paragraph form, Smith's words are so deep that I felt as though I was also mourning a loved one. She writes, "I didn't want to believe/What we believe in those rooms: That we are blessed, letting go, Letting someone, anyone;/Drag open the drapes and heave us/Back into our blinding, bright lives." Her words grow increasingly more poignant throughout this poem as Smith balances her grief with letting go of her emotions, ending with a crescendo of the dynamic between father and daughter. I could not help but shed a tear here.

Smith's title selection Life on Mars balances a plethora of emotions as she describes love, sexual violence, family dynamics, war, amongst other topics in a nine part epic. She begins with two sisters Tina and Anita as they gossip about being in love. Smith writes their section in paragraph form as she alternates between their points of view. Next she segues to describing a father's jailing of his daughter, highlighting the discrepancy between unconditional love and hatred. The poem moves to scenes in a jail and death at the hands of land mines, describing the blight of the death when people focus on hatred as opposed to love. The words here are exquisite and had me on edge, which for me as a reader does not occur too often when I read poetry; Smith's brilliancy was on full display with her centerpiece poem.

Finally, They May Love All That He Has Chosen and Hate All That He Has Rejected pinpoints racial motivated killings during May, 2009. Using couplets alternating with letters, Smith first describes the hate crimes and who killed who. Then, she has the murder victims pen letters to their killers, including a heartfelt plea from a nine year old victim. All describe seeing landmarks for the first time and having unlimited capacity for love now that they are no longer confined to a body. The writing is raw, deep, and an overarching plea to stop the what seems like endless violence in this country. This poem alone merits awards and is near the end of the collection in order to leave readers feeling wowed by this special work.

Tracy K Smith is deserving of her place as a poet laureate. From the small body of her work in Life on Mars, a reader only sees the tip of her exceptional work. Prior to her Pulitzer winning publication, Smith had written two other poetry collections. She has since written a memoir and has another poetry collection due out next year. If it is anything as powerful as Life on Mars, it is sure to be some of the best poetry I have written. At 5 shining stars, Tracy K Smith is one of the top authors I have read in 2017.
Profile Image for J.L.   Sutton.
659 reviews840 followers
February 13, 2020
"When the storm
Kicks up and nothing is ours, we go chasing
After all we're certain to lose, so alive ---
Faces radiant with panic.”

Tracy K. Smith’s Life on Mars is a fantastic collection of poems that explores a wide variety of issues: grief, illness, pop culture, the weather and David Bowie. What drew me in further was how Smith linked her poems through space and science fiction imagery to question who we are and what we are doing at this moment. Sometimes, I felt like I was exploring the depths of space and time (and humanity) along with Smith. At other times, her tone reminded more of a conversation. I like poetry, but I don’t usually review it. One reason is that I seldom read a complete book of poetry. Instead, I read one or two poems at a time. If I liked the poems, I return to the book (or author) a week or two later (or more often three or four months later) and read some more. And I repeat. Even then, I sometimes just read the poems that initially caught my eye. This time was different. I’ve read Life on Mars twice and returned to a number of the poems more often than that. A selection highlighting Bowie is below. I highly recommend Life on Mars. Fantastic!

After dark, stars glisten like ice, and the distance they span
Hides something elemental. Not God, exactly. More like
Some thin-hipped glittering Bowie-being - a Starman
Or cosmic ace hovering, swaying, aching to make us see.
And what would we do, you and I, if we could know for sure

That someone was there squinting through the dust,
Saying nothing is lost, that everything lives on waiting only
To be wanted back badly enough? Would you go then,
Even for a few nights, into that other life where you
And that first she loved, blind to the future once, and happy?
He leaves no tracks. Slips past, quick as a cat. That's Bowie
For you: the Pope of Pop, coy as Christ. Like a play
Within a play, he's trademarked twice. The hours

Plink past like water from a window A/C. We sweat it out,
Teach ourselves to wait. Silently, lazily, collapse happens.
But not for Bowie. He cocks his head, grins that wicked grin.

Time never stops, but does it end? And how many lives
Before take-off, before we find ourselves
Beyond ourselves, all glam-glow, all twinkle and gold?

The future isn't what it used to be."

"Don't You Wonder Sometimes?"
Profile Image for Roxane.
Author 116 books156k followers
August 12, 2012
An outstanding book of poetry. There's a real narrative quality to many of the poems and I particularly appreciated the breadth of topics Smith engages with in her poetry. Some of the strongest poems are those that deal with current events. There's a strong sense of accessibility in that...these are the kind of poems that are meant to be read and understood and appreciated. Some moments are simply breathtaking. She uses the word gracile, which is a lovely, lovely word. The whole collection is mighty and well worth reading, more than once.
Profile Image for Michael.
657 reviews966 followers
May 14, 2018
Divided into four short sections, Life on Mars roams amongst a vast range of subjects: the cultural impact of David Bowie, the serenity of late spring mornings, the death of Smith's own father, the horror of racialized killings. Smith's interest in narrative and in pop culture links the disparate poems together, though, as does her crystalline imagery. Favorite poems included "The Speed of Belief" and "Don't You Wonder, Sometimes?"
Profile Image for Dolors.
524 reviews2,177 followers
May 5, 2022
Do not be fooled. Tracy Smith's poetry might seem more accessible than other works of poetry but there is insurmountable depth in each and every word, in every space, capital letter or question mark. A whole universe of meditation about death, injustice and grief squeezed into 97 pages.

In some poems, like in Solstice, she shoots line after line, as if bullets were crossing the streets and nobody took the situation seriously. There is chaos in that poem, and Smith tries to put some order through her stanzas, willing to find the logic in the countless absurdities we witness every day, but there is also rage at the general apathy of the population, a contained indignation that leaks through every word.

But mainly Smith's poetry is an elegy to the delicate balance between life and death, absence and presence, the constant change in optics when we consider the smallness of human life against the greatness of the universe.
You will find music, soul and genius in Smith's poems. And a lot of heart. More than enough for this reader to pursue her other works and dance to her tune until I can't disguish where she begins and I end.

We are here for what amounts to a few
a day at most.

We feel around making sense of the

our own new limbs,

Bumping up against a herd of bodies

until one becomes

Moments sweep past. The grass bends

then learns again to

Profile Image for Whitney Atkinson.
909 reviews13.8k followers
July 4, 2018
I wanted to love this wholeheartedly, but it straddled the line between "Oh, that's pretty!" and "What did I just read?" I forgot to mark this on Goodreads so it's been about a week since I've read it, and I honestly couldn't even give you a synopsis of what these poems were about because I think their message was a little lost on me, but I did mark several lines and poems I enjoyed, so I'm glad I picked it up.
Profile Image for Gerhard.
1,037 reviews515 followers
March 17, 2021
I didn’t want to believe
What we believe in those rooms:
That we are blessed, letting go,
Letting someone, anyone,
Drag open the drapes and heave us
Back into our blinding, bright lives.

Review to follow.
Profile Image for Telaina.
506 reviews11 followers
June 20, 2011
I was really torn about whether to give this three or four stars. The poems I liked I REALLY REALLY liked and these included Savior Machine, My God It's Full of Stars, Life on Mars (the title poem) and They May Love All That He Has Chosen and Hate All He Has Rejected. But other times I would be reading one of the poems in this collection and it was almost like my eyes would slide right off of it, like there was an obliqueness there that I couldn't get through. Nothing to hang onto in some poems. Nowhere to drop my anchor as a reader. Still, I would recommend this collection for the above listed poems and her beautiful elegaic style. I'm going to put her previous book of poems on my never-ending to-read list.
Profile Image for Julie Ehlers.
1,112 reviews1,384 followers
June 18, 2017
This was great. My favorite was the one about Bowie ("Don't You Wonder, Sometimes?"), but I loved the set of poems about her father, and the way she kept using outer-space imagery and themes. When she was named Poet Laureate, I immediately took this out of the library and inhaled it, but I can see myself getting my own copy and rereading it someday.
Profile Image for Ken.
Author 3 books905 followers
November 20, 2018
Not wall-to-wall winners, but a damned interesting mix of styles and moods and words, all built around the theme of space and a departed dad (her father worked on the Hubble telescope).

Pulitzer prize-winning poetry. Triple P. And I shared multiple poems from the text on my blah, blah, blog starting down this here rabbit hole and moving forward two or three posts, chronologically.
Profile Image for Lata.
3,509 reviews187 followers
February 11, 2018
I listened (read by the author) to this book, and there were some beautiful poems in this volume. I think I will need to read these, though, to get a better appreciation for the author's word choices and emotions.
Profile Image for Lauren .
1,701 reviews2,299 followers
June 8, 2017
Wow. That was a beautiful collection.

My favorites:
- The Universe is a House Party
- Museum of Obsolescence
- Aubade
- US & CO.
Profile Image for James Murphy.
982 reviews155 followers
December 5, 2014
Tracy Smith has written a volume of poetry touching on a favorite theme of mine, life on earth which requires one to stand and let imagination vault into the meaningless distances of outer space. Her book is ultimately about love, I think, concerned as it is with her father who famously worked as an engineer on the Hubble Telescope project. Her poetry here connects the closeness of earth with the reaches of space her father made it possible to see. In that way Smith can be thought of as life on earth yearning for what she can't reach, her departed father, or Nature beyond our solar system. She is earth-bound man looking into interstellar space for hope, her father. The poems situated on earth are darker than those about her father. Hope lies in the vast regions the Hubble can see but which man will never reach. This terrible dichotomy fills her book, the surprising partnership of faith and science, of light and darkness, and the yin/yang of existence is the matter filling Life on Mars. My favorite is called "Solstice." It's from the darker side of the book but has its own dichotomy. It's a villanelle, one of the most rhythmic, delightful poetic forms, a form so musical and pleasant that it stays with you throughout your day. But it's about killing troublesome geese at JFK. It's that kind of book.
Profile Image for Eliza Barry.
7 reviews
March 18, 2016
I had a really hard time with this collection. I really wanted to like it. And if it hadn't received a Pulitzer, I would not have judged it so harshly, but, because I expect quality and a respect for the macrocosm of poetry from Pulitzer-prize-winning poetry and poets, I approached this collection with high expectations. I was deeply disappointed.

Tracy Smith does have a certain innocence and wonder for life that is touching, and she asks probing questions, but her observations are too generalized. She only touches the surface of life, she never digs deeper. Pointing out the wonder of life is the beginning of a poet's job, not the entirety of it. Reveal the truth, put words to the truth. Don't be a tour guide. In Life on Mars, Smith is merely a tour guide, and not even an exciting one.

After all was read and done, the whole collection was a big let-down. And, I found the tie-ins to David Bowie a distasteful, almost shameful, gimmick.
Profile Image for Mir.
4,845 reviews5,003 followers
November 2, 2015
Interesting concept -- poetry about or inspired by science fiction.
Overall I found the ideas more impressive than the aesthetic qualities of the poems themselves.
In those last scenes of Kubrick’s 2001
When Dave is whisked into the center of space,
Which unfurls in an aurora of orgasmic light
Before opening wide, like a jungle orchid
For a love-struck bee, then goes liquid,
Paint-in-water, and then gauze wafting out and off,
Before, finally, the night tide, luminescent
And vague, swirls in, and on and on. . . .

In those last scenes, as he floats
Above Jupiter’s vast canyons and seas,
Over the lava strewn plains and mountains
Packed in ice, that whole time, he doesn’t blink.
In his little ship, blind to what he rides, whisked
Across the wide-screen of unparcelled time,
Who knows what blazes through his mind?
Is it still his life he moves through, or does
That end at the end of what he can name?

On set, it’s shot after shot till Kubrick is happy,
Then the costumes go back on their racks
And the great gleaming set goes black.
Profile Image for Eric.
147 reviews23 followers
November 1, 2022
this was a great work of poetry. i loved most of the poems in this collection, if not all of them.

the words are so powerful and oftentimes hard to analyse, but i think that’s the beauty of this collection. it’s the fact that we live in a world where we can’t know everything for certain. and i think that’s the beautiful and both painful part of this book.

it was a very short collection. i’ve been reading through it very slowly (despite the dates shown on here) and reading about a poem or two a day.

some of my favourite poems are: the universe is a house party, it’s not, no-fly zone, and the museum of obsolescence.

i highly recommend this collection. it was a special one.

all in all: a very good and necessary book to read. 4.25 stars
Profile Image for Lee.
339 reviews8 followers
July 14, 2019
US & CO.

We are here for what amounts to a few hours,

a day at most.

We feel around making sense of the terrain,

our own new limbs,

Bumping up against a herd of bodies

until one becomes home.

Moments sweep past. The grass bends

then learns again to stand.
Profile Image for Monica.
582 reviews611 followers
November 21, 2022
I confess that I am not much for poetry, but I so admire Smith's ability to articulate grief and loss and social injustice. He concept of visualizing through astronomy was fascinating and effective. I enjoyed the poems, though I may listen to the book to capture its full weight. A radical but captivating departure from my wheelhouse.

4 Stars

Read on kindle
Profile Image for Mery ✨.
611 reviews34 followers
April 4, 2022

The cover is gorgeous but this collection didn't work for me.
Profile Image for Ellie.
1,458 reviews369 followers
April 16, 2018
A group of poems, many overtly political, that stand on their own as poetry as well (for the most part). One particularly moving section has people who have been killed writing letters from the beyond to their murderers.
Profile Image for Liz Janet.
582 reviews381 followers
March 7, 2016
"Sailors fighting in the dance hall
Oh man! Look at those cavemen go
It's the freakiest show
Take a look at the Lawman
Beating up the wrong guy
Oh man! Wonder if he'll ever know
He's in the best selling show
Is there life on Mars?"

-Life on Mars, David Bowie.

I choose that song over any of these poems any day, but that does not detract from my enjoyment of the poems presented in this collection.

The future isn't what it used to be. Even Bowie thirsts
For something good and cold. Jets blink across the sky
Like migratory souls.The future isn't what it used to be. Even Bowie thirsts
For something good and cold. Jets blink across the sky
Like migratory souls.

- Don't You Wonder, Sometimes? I read this with the music of Life on Mars. It makes sense if you do it.

But she does not only refer to science and space, there is a poem in which she makes reference to the Fritzl case.

The same pipes threading through his life
Led in and out of hers. Every year the footsteps downstairs multiplied.

- Life on Mars
However, sadly, most of her poems failed to resonate with me, as they seemed to make my eyes glide off of the page. I see much potential, and a not so great execution.
I will point out, that maybe in the hands of another poet, and a more centered focus on the science and Bowie aspect, rather than her occasional focus on her father, this idea for a poetry book could be done much better.
Profile Image for Antonia.
Author 6 books30 followers
November 16, 2011
Will have to come back to this one. I know it's been highly lauded, but . . . It didn't do it for me. Though there were a few poems I really liked. Could be me. I should come back with a more open mind.
Profile Image for Abby.
1,411 reviews178 followers
July 12, 2016
"Everything that disappears/Disappears as if returning somewhere." (from the poem "The Universe: The Original Motion Picture Soundtrack")

Riveting and heartfelt poems involving relationships, space, David Bowie, dark matter, and the afterlife. This book has been on my to-read list for a few years now, and I am grateful that I finally got around to it.


"The Weather in Space"
"Cathedral Kitsch"
"The Largeness We Can't See"
"The Soul"
Profile Image for Lost Planet Airman.
1,234 reviews69 followers
September 8, 2016
Whew. This is excellent, thought-provoking poetry. And that makes it too much for me -- it takes way to much processing power to pour over the layers -- deep layers -- of meaning in each poem. But they are beautiful (although I prefer rhyme as well as scansion) and meaningful and even occasionally fun. Highly recommended to the poetry aficionado.
Profile Image for Raj.
46 reviews11 followers
September 7, 2021
"Maybe it’s more like life below the sea: silent,
Buoyant, bizarrely benign. Relics
Of an outmoded design. Some like to imagine
A cosmic mother watching through a spray of stars,
Mouthing yes, yes as we toddle toward the light,
Biting her lip if we teeter at some ledge. Longing
To sweep us to her breast, she hopes for the best
While the father storms through adjacent rooms
Ranting with the force of Kingdom Come,
Not caring anymore what might snap us in its jaw."

—My God, It's Full Of Stars

For every bookworm out there from the same poem, here:

"Sometimes, what I see is a library in a rural community.
All the tall shelves in the big open room. And the pencils
In a cup at Circulation, gnawed on by the entire population.

The books have lived here all along, belonging
For weeks at a time to one or another in the brief sequence
Of family names, speaking (at night mostly) to a face,

A pair of eyes. The most remarkable lies."

Favorite poem: Speed Of Belief.
Profile Image for BookChampions.
1,183 reviews107 followers
May 29, 2015
For my first run-through (books of poetry always deserve multiple readings), I was very impressed with this award-winning collection of poetry. The most notable facet of these poems is its utterly perfect rhythm. It was impossible for me to read this book silently. Every word wanted to be read aloud; so as I spat out sentence after sentence, Smith seemed to be proving just how well she understand the English language. These poems were at turns punchy and reflective, but every one left me startled by its understanding of the world around me—only she makes that world appear a lot larger and filled with more mystery.

My favourite was oddly, the very first poem, "Sci-Fi." That was the one I wanted to immediately share with my high school students. "My God, It's Full of Stars," of course, is an impressive piece of work, and "The Universe as Primal Scream" was a stunner, too.

Tracy K. Smith is a first-class poet, and I'm better off having read her work. She's officially on my radar. (Thanks, Tess!)
Profile Image for Ify.
165 reviews179 followers
June 4, 2018
So, I’m not a big fan of poetry because it typically goes over my head. However, there are some that have recently caught my attention due to either social media or personal recommendations. I learned about Tracy K. Smith last December when a friend shared her memoir with me. Upon looking her up, I discovered that Tracy K. Smith is the US Poet Laureate (I didn’t even know that was a thing!), and that she had published some poetry collections. I then decided to begin with Life On Mars, which won a Pulitzer in 2012.

When I started reading this collection, I was skeptical; but as I kept reading, and her words washed over me, I realized I was reading something special. Something brilliant. This collection draws inspiration from a variety of influences like David Bowie, Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, her late father, and more. The poems here are teeming with vivid imagery, pulsing with imagination and grounded in a sense of curiosity.

I really love this collection of poems, and highly recommend it!
Displaying 1 - 30 of 1,000 reviews

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